Age at drinking onset and alcohol dependence: age at onset, duration, and severity

Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2006 Jul;160(7):739-46. doi: 10.1001/archpedi.160.7.739.


Objective: To examine whether starting to drink at an early age is associated with developing alcohol dependence at a younger age and chronic relapsing dependence, controlling for respondent demographics, smoking and illicit drug use, childhood antisocial behavior and depression, and family alcoholism history.

Design: Cross-sectional survey.

Setting: Nationwide face-to-face survey with a multistage probability sample.

Participants: A total of 43,093 adults were surveyed in 2001-2002.

Main outcome measures: Based on Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, criteria, lifetime alcohol dependence, dependence within 10 years of starting drinking, multiple episodes, an alcohol dependence episode in the past year, episodes exceeding 1 year, and meeting 6 or 7 dependence criteria.

Results: Relative to respondents who began drinking at 21 years or older, those who began drinking before age 14 years were more likely to experience alcohol dependence ever and within 10 years of first drinking (adjusted hazard ratios and 95% confidence intervals [CIs], 1.78 [1.51-2.11] and 1.69 [1.38-2.07], respectively). They also more often experienced past-year dependence and multiple dependence episodes (adjusted odds ratios, 1.93 [95% CI, 1.40-2.64] and 3.09 [95% CI, 2.19-4.35], respectively). Among alcohol-dependent persons, the odds were 2.62 (95% CI, 1.79-3.84) for having at least 1 episode exceeding 1 year and 2.89 (95% CI, 1.97-4.23) for meeting 6 or 7 dependence diagnostic criteria.

Conclusion: There is a need to screen and counsel adolescents about alcohol use and to implement policies and programs that delay alcohol consumption.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Age Factors*
  • Alcohol Drinking / psychology*
  • Alcoholism / etiology*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Health Surveys
  • Humans
  • Risk Assessment
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Time Factors
  • United States